The National FirstOntario Concert Hall, Hamilton ON, December 10
Published Dec 11, 2017One year after playing a benefit gig for local Syrian refugees, the National returned to Hamilton, Ontario for their Sleep Well Beast tour. They didn't need to — the previous night (December 9), they sold out the larger Sony Centre and could have easily done the same on the Sunday night (December 10) — but as Aaron Dessner acknowledged halfway through, the National's manager and sound guy Brandon Reid is a resident of Steeltown, so the band officially "have family here."
Walking out to a live camera that continued to track their every move, the seven-piece band (bolstered by additional members Ben Lanz and Kyle Resnick) and current dad rock flag-bearers began with a healthy serving of tracks from Sleep Well Beast. When they reached "Walk It Back," frontman Matt Berninger cited all of the liars in Washington, adding, "This is for one of the original liars, Karl Rove. Go fuck yourself." "Guilty Party" then offered the night its first of many electric moments: the two Dessner brothers duelling on guitar for a much heavier climax than the song's studio version.
Berninger then introduced his drink of choice for the night, a regrettable mix of tequila and white wine he calls a Cincinnati Sunrise. He then gave to a fan in front to sample; he would ultimately launch it into the air, where it would land on Resnick and Lanz. In fact, a splash warning was perhaps in order, as he would hurl his beverage into the crowd a couple more times throughout the set.
The night didn't just belong to the new album, though. The National were quite generous with their back catalogue. "Squalor Victoria" inspired a massive clap-along, and Berninger to shred his vocals for its coda. Bryce Dessner curiously held two guitars for "I Need My Girl," swinging and banging one just for some feedback. "We once played this song for six straight hours," Aaron Dessner said, introducing "Sorrow." Both he and Berninger expressed just how unnecessary it is to both listen to and play the song more than once.
When a fan yelled out a request for "Runaway," Aaron Dessner described "Turtleneck" as "like, the polar opposite of 'Runaway.'" Sleep Well Beast's riveting standout then proceeded to possess Berninger, who began pacing around like a madman, taunting a stage crew member and tossing his drink into the seats with good distance. The set ended with "Fake Empire," which Berninger teased by asking, "How's your healthcare? This is for America."
They returned with "Rylan," a more obscure yet jaunty rocker that for some reason remains to be released. "Mr. November" followed, and it was at this point that Berninger felt compelled to make his traditional entrance into the crowd. Walking along both sides of the venue, he shared his mic on the chorus, then grabbed a fan's phone after a selfie, took it on stage and proceeded to get all up in Bryan Devendorf's drum kit to snap a few more selfies.
Things ended with "Terrible Love" and golden oldie "About Today," and with Berninger taking a towel and mopping up some of his spilled mess. Then, just as most of the band exited and the aisles started to spill out, Devendorf and Lanz engaged in a lengthy joint drum solo. It was an odd way to close out such a triumphant and memorable performance, but it demonstrated that the National have way more personality and tricks up their sleeve than some people give them credit for.